Padraig MacKernan, who died last Monday after a long battle with cancer, was a central figure in Irish diplomacy for several decades prior to his retirement in 2005. He was head of the Department of Foreign Affairs and also served terms in senior ambassadorial posts abroad. Exceptional among his colleagues for his ability, he was also exceptional for his forthrightness.
Born in Limerick in 1940, he was educated by the Jesuits at Crescent College before taking a degree in French and English at University College Galway, where he was auditor of the debating society and took part in the dramatic society. He spent a year at the Sorbonne working towards his master's degree in French.
He entered the Department of External Affairs as a third secretary in 1964 and served in the consulates in Boston and New York. In 1969 he was called in to assist at the United Nations when Foreign Minister Patrick Hillery appealed to the Security Council to intervene in Northern Ireland.
In 1972, in the wake of Bloody Sunday in Derry, he accompanied Hillery to Washington. After a brush-off, Hillery indicated that Ireland might have to look to the east if it did not get support elsewhere; as MacKernan was rather to the left he could have been suspected of influencing Hillery in this bold stance.
MacKernan returned to headquarters in 1974 to work under Noel Dorr (a fellow UCG man whom he admired greatly) on European political co-operation. His ease with French was a great asset as the proceedings were conducted in that language. He was admired by his peers in other member states for his wisdom and common sense. As a colleague he could be hasty, even angry, but he was absolutely straight. He was possessed of a salty wit and a healthy irreverence.
Having an imperfect sympathy with his contemporary Sean Donlan, who became head of the department in 1983, MacKernan was glad to go abroad to serve as ambassador to Washington in 1985. He went on to become Permanent Representative to the European Union in 1991. As such, he was involved in the negotiation of special terms for Ireland under the Treaty of Maastricht. His experience made him an inevitable choice to succeed Dorr as head of the department in 1995.
Dick Spring was a congenial minister who ensured funding for a spectacular expansion of the department at home and diplomatic representation abroad. But discontent about promotions and appointments was still not quieted. These erupted into a public incident in October 1998 when the Fianna Fail minister, David Andrews, unhappy that officials who had impressed him were being passed over, sought to overturn recommendations for promotions made by MacKernan. MacKernan stood his ground in a unique show of public defiance by a civil servant. All parties were promoted but tensions persisted until Andrews retired in 2000.
MacKernan's final posting in 2001 was to his beloved France. It gave him joy to be present at the final translation of the Irish college into an Irish cultural centre. He was a particularly appropriate representative at the celebration, in 2004, of the 60th anniversary of the Normandy landings: three of his uncles had served in the wartime RAF.
MacKernan's term as ambassador ended on a sour note relating to the dismissal of the Filipino man who had served as butler at the embassy. MacKernan criticised the department when, after his retirement, it terminated the man's employment, which went back 17 years. MacKernan accused it of shabby treatment of staff.
MacKernan spoke of writing memoirs. I don't know how far he got. They would be less anodyne than most diplomatic memoirs.
Last summer he received an honorary doctorate at University College Galway.
He is survived by his wife Catriona, whom he met when they were students in Galway, and three sons.